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Liberalism has long been depicted as neutral and tolerant. Already in the eighteenth-century, when Englishmen and Americans began to develop modem conceptions of what they called "liberality," they characterized it as elevated above narrow interest and prejudice. Of course, liberality or what now is called "liberalism" can be difficult to define with precision, and there have been divergent, evolving versions of it. Nonetheless, liberalism has consistently been understood to transcend narrow self-interest or bigotry. Accordingly, many Americans have confidently believed in it as a neutral, tolerant, and even universalistic means of claiming freedom from the constraints of traditional and parochial communities.

Yet liberalism has not always seemed entirely neutral, tolerant, or universalistic. Initially, in the eighteenth century, liberality was often asserted on behalf of minorities (including slaves and religious dissenters). It was employed to undermine the limitations of traditional English and American society and to establish broader, more liberal relationships and ideals. In these early circumstances, liberality often seemed the epitome of an elevated, cosmopolitan neutrality and tolerance. Later, however, liberality evolved into the shared assumption of a majority increasingly indifferent to its smaller communities and affiliations. In these circumstances, the illiberal potential of liberality became ever more apparent.


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